Sampan, cruise ship …no stormy seas, I hope

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By Abhijit Nag

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I thought I was on an island. Now I am all at sea. Is this a cruise ship I am on, a sampan, a work boat, a luxury liner?

No, this isn’t the Anchor beer speaking. I am still reeling from the news that what I thought was the ground under my feet is being described as a vessel of some sort.

An upgraded sampan, said the Prime Minister, no less. However, he can trim his sails when needed. Witness the raft of changes since the elections.

On the other hand, how sound are the bearings of Koh Buck Song who wrote an article in The Straits Times headlined “Sink the old sampan, Singapore is now a cruise ship”?

If that was supposed to be a Gotcha moment, well , it wasn’t . The sampan didn’t sink like the Belgrano as the Prime Minister himself rushed to its defence. “My eyes popped out,” he said, apparently amazed at the utter absurdity of a sampan being mistaken for a cruise ship.

In reply to questions from reporters, he added with a laugh: “I think we have upgraded our sampan. It’s sampan 2.0.”

Sampan? Cruise ship? Are we talking of my Singapore? Tower blocks overlooking tree-lined avenues is what I see; the sea is nowhere in sight.

But then I am not a poet like Koh – and as for what the Prime Minister said, he was following the course set by his predecessors. Singapore is a sampan, they said, so sampan it is, albeit an upgraded sampan. After all, no one can say Singapore hasn’t changed in the nine years he has been prime minister. And, no, I am not thinking of the population explosion though it is surprising that amid all this talk of cruise ships and sampans, no one has compared Singapore to an overcrowded barracoon.

Quips aside, this is no storm in a tea cup. For the conflicting nautical analogies express different perceptions of Singapore.

Singapore is no longer a sampan; it has become a cruise ship, according to Koh. “The more limited imagery of a sampan has little room for the weak,” he wrote. “But, catering for an inclusive society, a cruise ship has a sick bay and duty medical personnel, and activities for the disabled, seniors and children.”

PM Lee did not argue for or against a more inclusive society. He simply said that though Singapore is no longer poor and defenceless, “we need to keep on working hard”. “Once you think you are in a cruise ship and you are on a holiday and everything must go swimmingly well and will be attended to for you,” he warned, “I think you are in trouble.”

But Koh never said cruise ships were just boatloads of fun. In fact, he mentioned the hard work put in by the operators and the crew to keep the cruise business running.

Still, not everyone can afford to go on a cruise.

There lies the irony. Koh talks of a more inclusive society but draws an analogy with something not everyone can afford.

Unwittingly, it shows how wide the disparity in incomes and experiences has grown that someone calling for a more inclusive society compares it with a ship that is definitely not egalitarian. We are not all on the same boat.

If Singapore is a ship, it is more like the vessels of yore which brought authors like Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham to these shores. Ships that carried the rich and the poor alike and hauled cargo too. But those days are long gone and Singapore is nothing if not “cutting edge”, to quote Koh, and “upgraded”, in the Prime Minister’s words.

So let’s not split hairs over Singapore’s nautical class but agree it’s a good ship and wish fair winds and following seas. “Something ‘bout a boat/Gives a man hope,” sang Jimmy Buffett. Give it a listen.